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Alfred Russel Wallace on why Mars is not habitable

Friend Malcolm Chisholm, who has a wonderful approach to information (= he reads a lot) writes to tell me of a book written by Alfred Russel Wallace (Darwin’s co-theorist) on the question of the habitability of Mars:

It is called “Is Mars Habitable?” It was written in 1907 when Wallace was living in Broadstone, Dorset (where I went to school).

Wallace takes on Percival Lowell, a supreme icon of American astronomy. Lowell thought there were Martians and they used canals etc. Wallace blows up this theory, ending the book with the statement:

“Mars, therefore, is not only uninhabited by intelligent beings such as Mr. Lowell postulates, but is absolutely UNINHABITABLE.”

Remember that Wallace has been derided for his beliefs in ID and spiritualism. Yet he was obviously not afraid to go against the scientific speculative spirit of the age.

Indeed. The introduction to the 1907 edition, scanned online, editor Charles H. Smith notes,

For many years one of Wallace’s least remembered books, Is Mars Habitable? is increasingly being recognized as one of the first examples of the proper application of the scientific method to the study of extraterrestrial atmospheres and geography–that is, as one of the pioneer works in the field of exobiology.

Here is Wallace’s conclusion:

To put the whole case in the fewest possible words:

(1) All physicists are agreed that, owing to the distance of Mars from the sun, it would have a mean temperature of about -35̊ F. (= 456̊ F. abs.) even if it had an atmosphere as dense as ours.

(2) But the very low temperatures on the earth under the equator, at a height where the barometer stands at about three times as high as on Mars, proves, that from scantiness of atmosphere alone Mars cannot possibly have a temperature as high [[p. 110]] as the freezing point of water; and this proof is supported by Langley’s determination of the low maximum temperature of the full moon.

The combination of these two results must bring down the temperature of Mars to a degree wholly incompatible with the existence of animal life.

(3) The quite independent proof that water-vapour cannot exist on Mars, and that therefore, the first essential of organic life–water–is non-existent.

The conclusion from these three independent proofs, which enforce each other in the multiple ratio of their respective weights, is therefore irresistible–that animal life, especially in its higher forms, cannot exist on the planet.

Mars, therefore, is not only uninhabited by intelligent beings such as Mr. Lowell postulates, but is absolutely UNINHABITABLE.

What made Wallace so unpopular compared to Darwin is that he insisted that in science, evidence matters. Carl Sagan-style proclamations like “They’re out there! How could we be so arrogant as to think we are all alone!” do not become science just because they are proclaimed by scientists.

See also:

Boldly go, but why, exactly?

Extraterrestrials: Several million UFOs later – the state of the question

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3 Responses to Alfred Russel Wallace on why Mars is not habitable

  1. Wallace believed more strongly in Natural selection than Darwin did, an unpopular notion at the time. Is that more evidence of his stringent reliance on evidence, or just a blip on the radar?

  2. 2

    Wallace incurred the ire of T.H. Huxley by going against the article of faith that natural selection can do everything. Wallace came to believe, later on, that it could not account for humans.

    There is something very strange in the story of Lowell and the canals on Mars. The public was basically duped into believing there were nonexistent canals on Mars for many decades. I’m sure there was a reason for this, and it wasn’t simply an “error” on the part of Lowell. You can see illustrations of Mars with canals well into the 1950′s and 1960′s. They simply don’t exist and Lowell was a fraud. Lowell did write a very peculiar book full of weird rants about man’s evolution and extraterrestrials and so on. I have only glanced at it, but your post reminds me to examine it thoroughly. There is more to this “Canals on Mars” story, I am sure. It’s probably some con-job like Bathybus or Haeckel’s embryos.

  3. 3

    You can get the complete book here:

    Is Mars Habitable?

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